The first thing that one has to keep in mind is the distinction of types of sin. There are two types of sin, one is mortal sin. Mortal sins always involve what is called “grave matter” – where the nature of the sin is such that it can actually sever our relationship with God when we have full knowledge of what we are doing and give full consent to doing it. Mortal sins remove sanctifying grace which is given to us at Baptism and can only be restored through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The second type of sin is venial sin which does not involve grave matter, but which we do with knowledge and consent. While venial sins can be forgiven in a number of ways, mortal sins can only be forgiven by confessing them.
The second nature of sin that we have to keep in mind is that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are those that we actively do, whereas sins of omission are those we do not do. Finally, we have to keep in mind the nature of temptations. Temptations that come into our mind without our giving any willful assent are not sins. Temptations, in order to become sinful, need to be given consent to in order to take on a sinful nature. In other words, the fact that a thought may come into the mind without willing it is not a sin, however, taking that thought and continuing to think about it, to dwell on it or to plot how to carry it out moves that temptation into the nature of sin, because we have moved to the point where we “agree” to entertain it.
Once we have an understanding of sin, we can prepare ourselves to confess that sin by doing an examination of conscience. An examination of conscience is the time taken to take an honest look at our lives and to hold it up to the life of Christ and see where we failed to follow in the way of Our Lord. There are numerous ways we can do this. For some, they find a few quiet moments examining their relationships, their actions, their thoughts and their words, is a sufficient way of coming to an understanding of what needs to be confessed. For others, it’s helpful to have a guide of some sort – this could be the Ten Commandments, or it could be an examination of conscience put together by someone else, or there are wonderful guides that can be found on the internet, especially on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org). There are even phone apps that are designed to facilitate this examination!
As we make our examination of conscience it is good to keep in mind a number of things. The first is that honesty is important in going to confession. Any sin that is confessed is forgiven, any sin willfully hidden is not forgiven and, in fact, we add the sin of not being honest in confession! A sin that is forgotten is still covered under the grace of the absolution that is offered. Secondly, we have to keep in mind that we are not quite as unique as we think we are. Sometimes people are hesitant to be honest because they wonder what the priest will think of them – I can honestly say, that most, if not all priests, have heard most every sin under the sun and confessing it will not shock him or cause him to think less of you, but often will be a moment of grace for the priest as well, who encounters such faith in another. Finally, invoking the aid of the Holy Spirit is essential in making a good examination of conscience, it is He who illumines our minds and hearts and helps us to see ourselves clearly and while He helps us to know our sin, that knowledge is never an end in itself, it’s always to lead us to an encounter with God’s mercy where our sin is taken away and new life begins.